The People's Bible by Joseph Parker
Woe to the land shadowing with wings, which is beyond the rivers of Ethiopia:God In Opposition
Reading some portions of Isaiah is like passing through a succession of thunderstorms on a dark night: no sooner is one over than another begins: the darkness is cut to pieces by lightning, and the most solid things are rent and torn by the very demon of anger: nations are split like soft wood; empires are shattered like the toys of a child; as for kings, they melt like bubbles on a stream; thrones are no more accounted of than the stubble which is cut up by the plough. It is grand reading—for those who are not involved in the tragedy. Those who look from the shore upon some mighty ship, billow-struck, grappling with the very ogre of ruin, may describe the scene in poetic terms; but the men on board are white with agony or dumb with despair. So it is with this succession of thunderbursts and lightning flashes and destructive strokes. The contempt which the prophet expresses for empires, nations, kings, crowns, armies, and things grand and overwhelming could not have been his own. It is at once too sublime and too subtle to be mere poetry. We know human contempt and its measure, all its bitterness and all its little scope. There is an inspired contempt—a scorn which burns like the fire of God. Men know when they are the subjects of inspired contempt. It is easy to distinguish between a sneer and a divine scorning, a prejudice and an eternal judgment. Who cares for a human sneer? It may be changed into a smile to-morrow, and both sneer and smile are of precisely the same value; but a man knows when he is righteously overborne, when he is hunted to death by God. There is a prejudice that comes and goes, and mere action of opinion; and there is a scorning which fills the sky, so terrible that a man may not look up, or he will be cursed by the just contempt. Isaiah never made this scorn; no poet ever made it. "The glory of Moab shall be contemned, with all that great multitude; and the remnant shall be very small and feeble"; "In that day shall Damascus be as a forsaken bough, and an uppermost branch, and there shall be desolation"; "The harvest shall be a heap in the day of grief and of desperate sorrow"; "God shall rebuke the nations, and they shall flee far off, and shall be chased as the chaff of the mountains before the wind, and like a rolling thing before the whirlwind." This is no mere poetry; it would not be poetry, it would be cruelty, if there be not under it all an explanatory righteousness. The moral element saves it from being a mere play of fancy, an intellectual aurora borealis. This is the very judgment of God. And we know it all. We are well aware when we are rightly judged. When others are applauding us and we are condemning ourselves, the discrepancy is an awful irony in the soul; the applause goes for nothing, it is empty wind, it is a passing noise; but this interior judgment, this self-condemnation, kills every comforter who comes unconsciously to mock us with his solace.
"And behold at eveningtide trouble; and before the morning he is not" (Isaiah 17:14). God fights some battles between evening and morning. The black night is the field of war. It is all over by the dawn. Not a voice can be heard; nothing can be seen but desolation: how it was done no man can tell. The darkness fights for God; it is not only a soldier of his, but a great army, immeasurable, invincible. Some processes are hidden. The night is needed for more than rest. God could make us sleep in the daytime, and have us watched in our slumber, as it were, by the sun. But the night is wholly given over to sleep. How busy the angels are on the fields of darkness! How they dart through it like flashes of light! How they come in dream and vision! Who can tell all this nocturnal ministry, in its beginning, its action, its purpose, its end? "Thou fool! this night shall thy soul be required of thee." Men are fetched at night by the invisible constable: they are looked for in the morning, and there is nothing but the mould they left on the bed in which they intended to sleep. Who reckons the night when he adds up his time? It may go for nothing to us because of our unconsciousness, but God sleeps not, nor do his judgments tarry for the light. Or we may reverse the scene, and make even this picture rich with beauty; it may be loaded with messages of comfort. Is it the enemy who comes up at eventide? Is it Sennacherib that plants his army at sundown, and says he will work ruin upon the fortresses of Jerusalem? Behold in the morning he is not! The angel of death swept down with a blast, and a great wind carried away the boastful foe. Thus, still God works in the night time. The ministry of the night is not interfered with by change of figure or by change of its application. Hear this singing word, and say how well it fits the scene: "Weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning." Speaking of the wicked we may apply the figure of night so as to find in it terror and fear, sorrow, and judgment, and death; speaking of the good man, we may say, Dry thy tears, thou foolish unbelieving weeper, or shed them gratefully to get rid of a needless burden; for sorrow endureth but for a night, joy cometh in the morning: take in the black guest, do what thou canst for him, he is sent of God for holy purposes; he can live but for a night, thou mightest afford to be kind to him; it were but one night in a long life.
This rule may be applied to more places than one in the prophecies of Isaiah. We are not always reading of judgment, even when apparently there is a tone of threatening in the words, for the threatening may be directed against the enemy, and a rich promise may be hidden in its very heart, to be handled and lived upon by the honest soul. "This is the portion of them that spoil us, and the lot of them that rob us." So it would appear that the figure is one intended for the comfort of the people of God. We may fall asleep indeed, and in the morning inquire, How goes the war? and, behold, the warriors are dead and gone. "With what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again." Robbery is a compound act. A man who steals a loaf of bread when he is hungry, and does it openly, and does it as a last resource, is no robber. He has the right of humanity to the loaf that is in the cupboard of society. The man who steals under sudden temptation, who confesses, repents, and restores, must be forgiven, and must be numbered amongst honest men. Sydney Smith was a magistrate, but the poor people said he pleaded like a parson with the magistrates when they wished to condemn a poor man who, being half-starved, shot game or snared it for the relief of himself and his family. He was a prophet of the Lord when he so pleaded. The witty canon had understanding of human nature and of divine purposes, and he was a just judge when he said, Forgive the hard-pressed man, for thus only could he keep together body and soul. But this is not the robbery spoken of in the text, nor is it the kind of robbery that society must set itself against with a thousand unsparing penalties. The difficulty is this, that the great robber is a hero, and the little robber is a felon. It is the same with war. A man who overthrows a nation is memorialised on brass and marble; a man who kills a solitary fellow-creature is handed over to the public hangman: the one is a hero, feted by kings and princes, and the other is a murderer, locked up in an iron cage, and kept to be hanged. It is the same way with robbery. A man robs other nations, and we call him great. The little robber is a coward; he waits until the light is put out, until the streets are silent; he can hear his own heart beat, then he puts forth the thievish hand. The robber is a liar. He has to live a lie, though perhaps he may never openly tell one. He is himself a lie. The robber is a false accuser: he has to blame other people, or to blame circumstances, or to blame in some way the subtle influences which have been brought to bear upon him. The robber is an enemy of society; he brings other persons under suspicion. But there is a kind of robbery of which even honest men may be guilty. Let us be careful how we condemn a man who breaks any one of the ten commandments; he may only have broken one, and his critics may have broken the whole ten. "Thou shalt not steal" is not applied to the purse, which has been poetically denominated "trash"; we may steal good names, fair reputations, just rewards; we may endeavour to trouble a man who is being honestly applauded by those to whom he has done good by suggesting doubts and fears concerning him. He is but a little thief who takes money; he is a great robber who takes away peace of mind, trust in character, and who blocks up the way of a man in the world. In all such matters let us be just and complete in our view.
Now we come to a verse which is as divisible into two interpretations as the one we have just studied:—
"For so the Lord said unto me, I will take my rest, and I will consider in my dwelling-place like a clear heat upon herbs, and like a cloud of dew in the heat of harvest. For afore the harvest, when the bud is perfect, and the sour grape is ripening in the flower, he shall both cut off the sprigs with pruning hooks, and take away and cut down the branches" (Isaiah 18:4-5).
How full of suggestion is this as to the method of the divine administration! "I will take my rest." God is supposed to utter these words. And they would seem to encourage those who have hidden themselves in false security; they say, The sky is clearer, the wind has gone down, all danger is past, now we may venture forth; not knowing that God is, humanly speaking, taking his rest. Having laid down the weapons of judgment he is considering in his heaven what shall be done next. The wrong-doer thinks that all is past and gone, dead and forgotten, and that he is now at liberty to go forth as a man unrecognised, without the old felon's brand. Nothing of the kind. Whoever goes into punishment goes into everlasting punishment. Why this ado about everlasting torment and penalty? Every penalty is eternal, if it is just. A man may suffer penalty, and be the better for it, the nobler; he may even secure to himself a lasting place in the gratitude of society; we are not speaking of such penalty, but of punishment which is due, just, righteous altogether. Never can that brand be taken out of the flesh; the hideous root and seam will be observed there, though the flesh be healed to the eye. God may have but withdrawn. We are obliged to resort to figure and to illustration, for only so can we approach the mysteries of the divine nature for the time to consider what judgment can be added, or what weapon can be next employed.
Then again the figure suggests that righteousness is assured. That is to say, it will be reasserted and will be vindicated, and at last righteousness will stand up in the light, whilst wickedness will be buried in the grave, marked only by contempt. The sword is only resting; it will be used again, and always used in the interests of righteousness. Thus we may turn this image, and find in it also, as in the former one, abounding comfort; for it may suggest assured helpfulness to the good. Is God apparently withdrawn from us? He will come again. Is the Christian work being overborne? It is, but for a small moment: God is only resting, considering; and when men are putting forth their hands to reach all the fulness of the harvest he will cut off branches and all the fields of wheat, and they shall thrust their hands into the darkness, and reap nothing but emptiness. This may be the real meaning of the passage, which may be then thus paraphrased: You think I have forsaken you, but you are mistaken; you suppose your cause is lost, but the cause of righteousness can never be lost: I am resting, considering, giving time an opportunity of exerting its influence; the whole thing is still within the hollow of my hand, and all things will be settled on a basis of infinite righteousness. Let us then be careful how we apply some of the sterner passages of Scripture, for we may occasionally, by the very stress of our fear, be misapplying them, and thus make God talk judgment to us when in reality he is pronouncing benedictions. The heart in all such cases is the best annotator and critic. Let a man feel that he deserves judgment, penalty, yea, hell itself, and he will find an abundance in the Scriptures which will confirm his own self-condemnation. Let him, contrariwise, be pure of soul, docile of spirit, anxious to know the divine will and do it all; then even in the lowering clouds he will hear a voice, in the darkening heavens he will see a star, in the thunder-peal he will hear a still small voice coming to his heart like the very music of heaven. The Bible is to us what we are to the Bible: to the froward God is froward, to the pure in soul he is a condescending Friend,—yea, he will come into the man's heart and sup with him, and make his abode with him.
Here, then, opens the great field of application. Have we done Wrong? We can never undo it. But we can repent. And this may, in effect, undo it for us. There is one thing we can never do—we can never forgive ourselves. Though our eyes were a fountain of tears, and our head were waters poured out in torrents, yet when all the floods are past there is the dark hideous fact, as palpable and ghastly as ever. Society may forgive us, God may forgive us, but unless we are lifted up in highest spiritual communion, touching even ecstasy and rapture itself, we dare not look back, or we should see the black spectre steadily keeping an accusing eye upon us. Blessed be God, self-forgiveness is impossible. Have we taken that which is not our own? Restore it; it is in vain to think that detection can be escaped; it can be escaped to-day and to-morrow, but the third day will be alive with a light of revelation and criticism, judgment and penalty. Though hand join in hand, the wicked shall not go unpunished. What, then, is the right spiritual attitude in relation to all this line of reflection?—"Let him that thinketh he standeth take heed lest he fall." Let there be no boasting, no mockery, no ruthless taunting. "Hold thou me up, and I shall be safe." If I can boast of my honesty, I am not honest; if I make it ostentatious, I make it unreal; if I have done any good, the good is all done by the living God within me. This should be the spiritual temper and attitude of every man who desires to serve God. Does this, then, mean indifference to wrongdoing? On the contrary, it means the highest sensitiveness towards wrongdoing and all its participants. But it also means self-control, self-judgment; and every incident in life will be lost upon us if it does not leave behind this impression, that: if we have been saved from being murderers, adulterers, robbers, evil men of any kind or degree, we have been so saved by the grace of God.
Almighty God, we are full of joy, because our work is to be tried by thyself, and not by another. Thou knowest all things; thou art merciful and just; thou dost try the reins of the children of men, but thou dost look upon them all with eyes of pity and of love. Thy judgment will stand when all other criticism fails and is forgotten. We would that we might, by thy grace, stand well with thee, that we might be accepted in the Beloved, that we might in all things be approved by thyself as men who are faithfully doing the work which thou hast put into their hands. The battle is not ours, but thine; the work is not man's, it is God's own work, and will be done in God's own time, yea, unto the putting on of the topstone amid gratulation and highest joy. Enable us to work during the few days that remain even to the strongest of us: behold, the time of the lengthening of the shadow hasteneth, and man goeth to his long home; may every one of us work with both hands diligently, always acknowledging the divine direction, always seeking heavenly inspiration; conceiving and inventing nothing of our own, but always with our face toward the rising sun and the opening heavens, that we may receive from on high our instruction and our charge and our inspiration. Bless those to whom thou hast appointed the discipline of suffering in great measure; say unto them that it all occurs for their purification, and release from evil bonds, and introduction into holy liberty. Dry the tears of unusual sorrow, the rivers of that great grief which can come but once in a lifetime and never reappear, compared with which all other distress is as a passing cloud. Nourish us, strengthen us, fill us with thy Spirit, redeem us every day with the precious blood of Jesus Christ, for being cleansed by that we shall be undefiled, and being released from sin by that energy we shall not be brought again into the captivity of evil. If the Lord will hear us, his hearing shall be unto us as a gracious answer. Amen.